Archive for September, 2011

Beautifully Imperfect

September 27, 2011

The the Impotence of Proofreading, by Taylor Mali

September 27, 2011

Facts About the World’s Population

September 27, 2011

Is Secularism a Religion?

September 26, 2011

Frustrated over a long succession of U.S. Supreme Court decisions applying the First Amendment’s establishment clause, faith groups have occasionally resorted to a novel argument—namely, that there is actually no difference between secularism and religion. Here, for example, is Matthew Wunderlin, writing for Catholic Online:

Besides the fact that our country was founded on biblical principles, that Congress has never made a law that promotes a particular religion, and that their actions clearly violate the precept that free exercise of religion shouldn’t be prohibited, I would like to make a case for the idea that promoting secularism is no different than promoting any other religion. (Emphasis mine)

If Wunderlin is right that secularism is a religion, then a court order to remove a monument containing the 10 commandments from a county courthouse favors one “religion” (secularism) over another (Judeo-Christianity), in violation of the establishment clause. If secularism is just another religion, then there are no grounds for prohibiting the teaching of creationism in public schools alongside evolutionary theory.

Such definitional claims would turn the First Amendment on its head, and that is perhaps their purpose.

Attempts to equate religion with secularism demonstrate just how hard it is for sectarian groups to bend the First Amendment to their purposes. Their only hope seems to lie in a semantic slight of hand, merging the core term of the amendment—-”religion”—-with what religion was clearly understood not to be when the First Amendment was drafted.

The semantic merger starts with an overly-generous definition of religion—-one that encompasses virtually every worldview that one may fervently hold. Even nihilism, generally regarded as the antithesis of religion, would fall under this rubric. Consider, for example, the following definitions:

  • Loosely defined, “religion” is nothing more than a belief system that moves its members to action or to support a cause with fervent devotion.
    (Matthew Wunderlin, writing for Catholic Online)
  • Religion: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.
    (one of four definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • Nihilism: a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or probability.
    (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

By the terms of the first two definitions, nihilism would only qualify as a religion if its adherents are fervent about it. Political movements such as communism and Nazism would also qualify with this stipulation. So would environmentalism, secular humanism, human rights advocacy, Republicanism, and libertarianism.

Since belief, action, and fervency are common to nearly every human endeavor, defining religion by these terms alone leaves very little that is not religious. Remove any one of the key terms and you’re left with various combinations of cynicism, inaction, and apathy. Is religion only the opposite of these? Most people of faith would strongly resist such a definition, and with good reason. Even people of faith can be afflicted with apathy at times, but they don’t then describe themselves as “irreligious.”

Clearly, such broad definitions of religion make the First Amendment toothless. That is why they are espoused, and that is why they must be resisted in courts of law. Even if there is no clear definition of religion in international law, there is certainly a nearly universal consensus that religion—and not just a subset of religion— entails beliefs of a particular kind—usually involving supernatural agents and higher powers. A secular humanist would add that such beliefs are arrived at not through critical thinking or free inquiry but through blind adherence to culturally-bound propositions unsupported by empirical evidence. This more restricted definition, whether seen through the lens of the believer or the secular humanist, would disqualify environmentalism, secular humanism, and human rights advocacy while leaving many of the political ideologies in the fold of religion.

Perhaps that is where they should reside. Atheists and secular humanists, accused by religionists of practicing a form of religion, have in turn labeled communism a “political religion” because of its suppression of free thought and its valorization of authority (the “dictatorship” of the proletariat) as the path to the ideal of a classless society. Authoritarian political ideologies have no more place in classrooms and courthouses than do authoritarian religious ones.

As historian Brian C. Wilson wrote, “the effort to define religion is as old as the academic study of religion itself [and] the definitional enterprise…continues in full vigor.” Nevertheless, absent such a definition, judicial interventions in First Amendment disputes are fraught with difficulties, and any attempt by the courts to supply their own working definition amounts to an “establishment” of religion (i.e., defining what religion is and is not). This is why Winnifred Fallers Sullivan titled her 2005 book, “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom” (Princeton University Press). To circumvent the definitional conundrum, Sullivan has argued for an approach that would emphasize “equality” over “religious freedom.” (See my post of 9/11/2011 for a review of her book.) Two years after her book’s publication, Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager published “Religious Freedom and the Constitution” (Harvard, 2007), in which they proposed to replace the “church/state separation” approach with one that they call “Equal Liberty.” Both these books are helpful in navigating the complex maze of judicial decisions regarding issues of religious freedom.

Eisgruber and Sager see a clear distinction between religious institutions and secular ones:

To be sure, secular institutions are not neutral, in the sense of being acceptable from the standpoint of all religions. But neither is secularity simply another religious viewpoint. Secular institutions and principles are self-consciously incomplete; indeed, they often strive to be incomplete. They aspire to constitute a practical realm in which various competing and contradictory philosophical and religious views may coexist and constructively interact. Secular institutions and principles are even partially embracing of philosophical or religious views that are themselves hostile to the idea of such a secular domain. They insist, for example, on the right to express antisecular views, even while limiting the freedom to translate such views into private and (especially) public actions. Religions, by contrast, are typically comprehensive; they speak to ultimate questions about life’s meaning, origins, and value.

Austin Dacey, author of “The Secular Conscience” (Prometheus Books, 2008), defines secularism as “the political arrangement that separates civil and ecclesiastical power and, typically, affords robust freedom of conscience to citizens.” And he adds, “Secularism is not atheism. There is a perfectly ordinary contemporary usage in English that just denotes matters independent of religion. For instance, … when journalists speak of a political party in Iraq or Palestine as a ‘secular party,’ they are not talking about a party composed of non-Muslims.”

The simplistic conflation of secularism and religion obliterates useful distinctions and does nothing to advance the principle of equal liberty in matters of faith and conscience. A much more nuanced and analytical approach is needed in determining not just what religion really is but whether its precise definition is even relevant to the enterprise of a free and open society.

Speaking with Conviction

September 25, 2011

Poem by Taylor Mali. Animation by Ronnie Bruce.

Elizabeth Warren Defends Taxing the Rich

September 23, 2011

This video has been going viral, and with good reason.

Texas-Size Lies from R. Perry

September 23, 2011

Pants on Fire

Bob Cesca calls out Rick Perry for his Texas-size whoppers about President Obama’s stimulus.

Are Religious Believers Just Nerds of a Different Stripe?

September 21, 2011

Is there really a difference between religious people and Trekkies? College Humor’s video looks at the similarities and the differences.

Julian Sanchez’s comments, quoted on The Daily Dish under the video, ignore the differences altogether in order to make the new atheists seem irrelevant and off-the-mark.  “…Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out all the ways that superhero physics don’t really make sense,” he writes.

Well no, that’s not actually what Richard Dawkins is up to. Anyone who has read his books would know that. He’s addressing people who actually believe that an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity created the cosmos only a few thousand years ago. We needn’t think for a moment that the so-called “young-earth creationists” are an insignificant minority of believers. They comprise 40% to 50% of the U.S. population. It may be fun to point out ways in which these believers are like Trekkies, but let’s get serious. Trekkies have never attempted to take over school boards, eliminate evolutionary science from state science textbooks, and have Star Trek episodes shown in science classrooms—as science, no less. This is a major difference, and Julian Sanchez is doing a disservice to scientific literacy when he fails to acknowledge that.

DADT Ended Today: A Gay Soldier Comes Out to His Father Over the Phone

September 21, 2011

Faith-based Prison Programs

September 19, 2011

Since 1997, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) has brought Christian ministry programs to state correctional facilities. IFI is operated by Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM), which was founded by Chuck Colson of Watergate cover-up fame. Five such facilities have offered these programs—-in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Texas—-and all are now privately funded. All, except the one in Texas, were state-funded until Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) brought a lawsuit against the one in Iowa. Its operations were ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in December, 2007. The case was seen as a major challenge to President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which sought to provide government funds for sectarian social services. (To view AU’s archives on the Iowa case, go to their Web site and search on “InnerChange.”)

IFI programs consist of lengthy Bible study sessions during which participants are told that alcoholism is a “sin” (not a disease) and that homosexuality and masturbation will draw them back into criminal behavior. An InnerChange brochure describes the program as a “24-hour-a-day, Christ-centered, biblically-based program that promotes personal transformation of prisoners through the power of the Gospel.”* Inmates opting not to participate in the program—especially Roman Catholics and Native Americans—-have faced conversion pressures, such as being told they’re going to burn in Hell or that their own religious practices are forms of witchcraft and sorcery.*

A University of Pennsylvania study of the effectiveness of the program in one Texas correctional facility concluded that participants in the IFI had a higher likelihood of being rearrested than non-participants–36% vs. 35%. Reimprisonment was at 24% for IFI participants and 20% for non-participants.*

The Iowa program was declared unconstitutional in part because it was discriminatory. A surcharge had been placed on telephone calls to and from all inmates to support a program that benefited only those who subscribed to the religious teachings of InnerChange. Families who objected to the surcharge were told they would no longer be allowed to contact relatives inside the prison if they stopped paying.

The lawsuit also alleged that InnerChange participants were given special privileges, the first of which was an opportunity to move into the most comfortable living unit in the state’s most desirable prison.* Once there, they were allowed keys to their own cells, access to private bathrooms, free telephone calls to family, extra visits from family, and access to computers and big-screen TVs. Even sweeter was the opportunity for participants to accrue treatment credits they needed for parole.

The program was also faulted for using state funds to pay for pervasively fundamentalist Christian instruction. Those funds were from the state’s tobacco litigation settlement, which had been earmarked in its entirety for public health. Americans United claimed that 99% of the Iowa program’s revenues in 2001 were from the states of Iowa and neighboring Kansas. The public funds were transferred to the parent organization, PFM, which then disbursed them for the program’s expenses.

Though these five InnerChange programs are still operational—and still offering perks to participants—they are no longer state-funded. Meanwhile, faith-based prison programs have proliferated across the U.S.* Florida operates three “faith and character-based institutions,” which are entirely dedicated to religious rehabilitation.

Freedom Forum
The New York Times
The Roundtable of Religion and Social Welfare Policy
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search on “InnerChange”)